Biggest Improvement Every Contender Must Make Before NFL Playoffs
As we reach the the final weeks of the NFL season, the playoff picture is finally starting to firm up. Several teams are virtual locks to make the playoffs, but that is not to say there aren't clear improvements that need to be made.
For teams like the New England Patriots, who've looked shaky at times this season, they will need to solidify their weak spots or else risk being exposed and thus eliminated from the playoffs. Especially with the loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Pats have some shuffling to do to ensure a solid run in the postseason.
*All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference
Philadelphia Eagles Must Play Better in Bad Weather
Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles have been on an awesome ride this past month-and-a-half. Their offense has looked more efficient than ever, with Foles and LeSean McCoy being the focal points.
During the course of the Eagles' current five-game winning streak, Foles has thrown for 1,348 yards and 14 touchdowns with a measly one interception. McCoy is the league's current leading rusher and has totaled over 1,300 yards with an impressive seven touchdowns and 40 catches.
Their biggest struggle since their ride with Foles began came this past weekend against the Detroit Lions in the bitter snow. Although they were on their home field, they struggled to perform well in the frigid conditions.
Granted, it was extremely hard to see because of the blizzard and they won't be facing that every week, but they are bound to be faced with the same challenge in the near future.
As long as they can put together an effective game plan in case of bad weather, the Eagles will be a dangerous team.
New England Patriots Must Mend 1st-Half Woes
The New England Patriots offense suffered a huge blow this past weekend when it lost Rob Gronkowski, but the unit's struggles go deeper than that.
They failed to score during the first half of their game against the Cleveland Browns this past weekend; even though they came back in impressive fashion, they shouldn't have been in that position in the first place.
The most discouraging part is that they were playing the Browns. Imagine if that was the Broncos or Colts. Would Tom Brady be able to complete that heroic comeback? Unlikely—very unlikely.
The Patriots have been outscored 47-7 in the first half of their past three games, and there appears to have been no improvement over that span. Josh McDaniels and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff needs to tighten things up or else they could take an early exit from the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers Must Get Offense Back on Track
The Carolina Panthers won eight straight games through their potent offense and stingy defense, but that offense has been nowhere to be found in recent weeks.
DeAngelo Williams hasn't had over 50 yards rushing in seven games and hasn't scored a touchdown in a month. With Jonathan Stewart out with injury, Williams' role in the offense has become even more important.
They need a confident running game to open up their passing game with Cam Newton. He's also struggled in recent games, largely because of his lack of a decent rushing attack.
Newton has a 3-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the Panthers' last three games with an average of just 199 passing yards a game after averaging 218 in their first 10 games.
These may seem like minuscule discrepancies, but they've added up and are starting to cost Carolina. They must rejuvenate their running game and allow Newton to take some chances through the air.
Baltimore Ravens Must Find Their Running Game
What a difference a year makes. Last season, Ray Rice was largely regarded as one of the best runners the league had to offer but has since gone down the drain.
He's had just one game of over 100 yards (Week 10 vs. Chicago Bears) and just two games of 50 yards or more.
During their Super Bowl run last year, they used a combination of Rice and Bernard Pierce to break down the defense before taking shots downfield with Joe Flacco, but that once-intimidating pairing has become a shell of what it was.
Their lack of a running attack is starting to have ramifications on their passing game, bringing down Flacco's efficiency a bit. They've become a more predictable offense because of their shoddy rushing attack, and if not for a few lucky breaks they wouldn't be in the playoff picture right now.
Once they regain their balance on offense things will start clicking and teams will have to respect them, but until then they're a hard team to bet on.
Seattle Seahawks Must Win on the Road
The Seattle Seahawks are lucky to be the current No. 1 seed in the NFC because they certainly struggle on the road.
Five of their seven road games have either been a loss or decided by five points or less, sometimes against a lesser team. Both of their losses have come on the road and were two of Russell Wilson's worst games this season.
The best case is Wilson can help straighten them up in these final weeks just in time for the playoffs, the worst case is they falter on the road and lose a prominent spot in the playoffs.
Kansas City Chiefs Must Tighten Up Their Secondary
The Kansas City Chiefs had a hell of a defensive showing through their 9-0 start to the season, but their secondary's weaknesses were exploited during their 1-3 record since.
If you toss out the game against the Washington Redskins, considering they aren't close to being contenders, the Chiefs struggled mightily against the Broncos and Chargers' passing attacks.
Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers combined for 1,118 yards and nine touchdowns in three games versus the Chiefs, highlighting the chink in their seemingly impenetrable defense.
Kansas City is still sitting pretty in the AFC playoff race, and maybe its tune-up game against Washington was enough to get it back on track, but firmer changes must be made.
Detroit Lions Must Improve as a Road Team
The Detroit Lions hold one of the tougher spots in the playoff seeding right now and must fix their problems on the road, as their playoff journey will surely include a road game at some point.
They've struggled greatly on the road this season, losing four of their seven traveling games. Matt Stafford will be key in the Lions' attempt to solidify themselves as a Super Bowl contender, and it starts on the road.
It is not set in stone that they will have the fourth seed, and if they do end up as a wild-card team then they must be ready to battle on the road.
Indianapolis Colts Must Get Boost from Defense
The Indianapolis Colts got a big reality check this past weekend in a 42-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Andrew Luck was near perfect (326 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions), yet they failed to stop Andy Dalton and Cincy's offense from taking over. Their defense has struggled greatly this season, allowing 19-plus points in seven of their last nine games.
If they are to make a deep run in the playoffs, they will need to start getting things together defensively as the AFC is filled to the brim with high-powered offenses.
San Francisco 49ers Must Keep Composure Offensively
We saw how much the San Francisco 49ers can struggle when Colin Kaepernick isn't playing well, but they seemed to have turned things around.
Kap has been on fire the past few games, passing for 685 yards and five touchdowns in his last three contests. Frank Gore is coming off his first 100-yard game since early October, and things are looking up (and more importantly, consistent) on offense for the Niners.
They can recreate their playoff success from last season as long as they can keep up this offensive output and remain poised as the regular season comes to a close.
Cincinnati Bengals Must Limit Andy Dalton's Mistakes
Andy Dalton gets a lot of praise for the Cincinnati Bengals' success, but he's actually had a pretty uninspiring season.
He's third in the league in interceptions (16) and has thrown 10 in his last six games. The Bengals are great on defense and have several offensive weapons, but Dalton needs to bring things together and correct his mistakes if they're serious about taking a step forward in the playoffs this season. They've been one and done the past two years and could make it three if Dalton can't clean up his act.
New Orleans Saints Must Balance out Their Offense
The New Orleans Saints have been a powerhouse team all season long, but it would greatly aid them if they could get a boost from their running game.
There was a span of a few games where either Pierre Thomas or Mark Ingram would make an impact for them, but they've been nowhere to be found these past couple of weeks.
They've been able to get by without a reliable rushing attack for a while, but it will catch up to them; especially if they are faced with a bad-weather game, the Saints will need to be able to run the ball effectively if they want to stay competitive against the teams they face.
Bad weather or not, a true running game will be of great help to them down the stretch.